“Limberlost,” by Ursula K. Le Guin, appeared in the Winter 1989 issue of MQR.
The poet revolved slowly counterclockwise in the small, dark, not very deep pool. The novelist sat on the alder log that dammed the creek to make the pool. Also on the log were the poet’s clothes, except his underpants. Coming upstream to the swimming hole they had passed a naked nutbrown maid, beached and frontal to the sun; but she was young and they were not; and the poet was not Californian. “You don’t mind if I’m old fashioned about modesty?” he had asked, disarmingly. The novelist, although a Californian, did not mind. The poet’s massive body was impressive enough as it was. Age, slacking here and tightening there what had been all smooth evenness in youth, gave pathos and dignity to that strong beast turning in the dark water. Among roots and the dark shadows of the banks the hands and arms shone white. The novelist’s bare feet, though tanned, also gleamed pallid under the water, as she sat rather less than comfortably on the log wondering whether she should have pulled off shirt and jeans and joined the poet in his pool. She had been at his Conference less than an hour and did not know the rules. Did he want a companion, or a spectator? Did it matter? She splashed the water with her feet and deplored her inability to do, to know, what she wanted herself — fifty-five years old and sitting in adolescent paralysis, a bump on a log. Should I swim? I don’t want to. Should I? Which underpants am I wearing? This is like the first day of summer camp. I want to go home. I ought to swim. Ought I? Now?
The poet spared her further debate by hauling out on the far end of the log. He was shivering. The log was in sunlight, but the air was cool. Discovering that he would not soon get dry in wet boxer shorts, he did then remove them, but very modestly, back turned, sitting down again quickly. He spread his underpants out on the log to dry, and conversed with his guest.
An expansive gesture as he described the events of the first week of the Conference swept his socks into the water. He caught one, but the current took the other out of reach. It sank slowly. He mourned; the novelist commiserated. He dismissed the sock.
“The Men have raised a Great Phallus farther up the river,” he said, smiling. “It was their own idea. I’d show you, but it’s off limits to the Women. A temenos. Very interesting, some of the ritual that has developed this week! I am hearing men talk — not sports scores and business, but talk — ”
Impressed and interested, the novelist listened, trying to ignore a lesser fascination: the sock. It had re-emerged, all the way across the sun-flecked water, under a muddy, rooty bank. It was now moving very slowly but apparently — yes — definitely clockwise in a circle that would bring it back toward the log. The novelist sought and found a broken branch and held it ready, idly teasing the water with it. Housewife, she thought, ashamed. Fixated on socks. Prose-writer!
Image: Holbrook, Peter. “Redwood Creek-Roots.” 1975. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.